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Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tenor drum, triangle, and strings. First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 19, 1919, with Walter Henry Rothwell conducting.
Richard Wagner’s exalted position in the hierarchy of historical musical figures is one of the givens of Western culture. He was a creative artist of magisterial proportion, a man of immense intellectual power and a musician of limitless scope, writing all of the librettos as well as the music for his vast stage works. And with the opening in 1876 of his own theater at Bayreuth he supervised every aspect of the productions of his music dramas. The amount of industry involved in all of this incredible productivity is staggering, but one is even more in awe of this superman when some of the adverse conditions under which he worked is taken into consideration. Consider Wagner’s life situation at the time he wrote his third opera, Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes.
He and his wife were newly arrived in Paris in 1839, having come from Riga where he had held a post as music director of the theater. The exit from Riga had been hastily made in the dead of night for the purpose of escaping hounding creditors. (This was not unusual, inasmuch as Wagner was just continuing a long history of indebtedness.) He had come to Paris with high hopes for access to the Opéra promised him by Giacomo Meyerbeer (originally Jakob Liebmann Beer), a Berliner who had become the dominant composer of French grand opera. But the door to the Opéra was not open to him and his only source of livelihood came from such hack jobs as making simple arrangements of numbers from successful operas, and also from writing articles for a local publication.
Of financial rewards there were none for Wagner in Paris, but there was compensation. He received many rich musical benefits, among them witnessing a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that thrilled him, and first hearings of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique and Roméo et Juliette, both of whose orchestrations were nothing short of revelations to him. Probably these musical experiences helped to urge him on to continue work on Rienzi, which he had started in Riga. It was in the not too inspiring atmosphere of a Parisian debtor’s jail that he completed the scoring of Rienzi, which, after many travails, was premiered in Dresden in 1842. Finally, Wagner triumphant: Rienzi was an enormous success. (But did it keep him out of debt? No.)
Rienzi, modeled on two of Meyerbeer’s elaborate operas, Robert le Diable and Les Huguenots, has as its locale 14th-century Italy and its title character the tribune Cola Rienzi, a champion of the Roman people against the scheming nobles. At the end of the five-act “great tragic opera” (Wagner), Rienzi, his sister Irene, and her lover Adriano are killed and the Roman capital consumed by flames.
The Wagner of Rienzi is a far cry from the Wagner of Tristan und Isolde and Der Ring des Nibelungen, but there is still plenty of evidence in it of the sweeping intensity and theatrical force that were later to shape the epochal music dramas. The Overture, consisting entirely of themes from the opera, has long stood on its rousing and melodic merits as a concert hall staple. Wagner’s stunning use of the brass is very much in evidence throughout the piece, beginning with the slow introduction which opens with a trumpet call that is oft repeated. And as an example of ripe, mid-19th-century melodic ex-pansiveness there is the eyes-to-heaven majesty of Rienzi’s prayer from the fifth act, a striking theme that is treated in the Allegro energico section with great urgency. Early Wagner, it seems, has more sing-along tunes than late Wagner.
Orrin Howard, who annotated Los Angeles Philharmonic programs for more than 20 years while serving as Director of Publications and Archives, continues to contribute regularly to the Philharmonic program book.